SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Thursday marked 24 years since federal legislation was first passed to protect victims of violence and to provide funding for agencies helping them.
The Violence Against Women Act is expiring at the end of September and it’s still waiting to be reauthorized by Congress.
VAWA is considered a landmark legislation. When it first passed back in 1994 – sponsored by Joe Biden, who at the time was still a Senator in Delaware – it was the first comprehensive federal legislation with guidelines for protections, collaboration, and funding for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“It was the first piece of legislation that said ‘domestic violence is a serious crime and it needs to be addressed’,” said Lisa Farmer, executive director of Harmony House.
“It genuinely changed the dialogue and the community-level approaches to responding to crime victims,” said Brandi Bartel, executive director at The Victim Center.
VAWA put in place certain laws and regulations to improve and increase services for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking by requiring collaboration among local agencies.
“So that individual organizations aren’t working in silos, but rather side by side,” Bartel said.
That includes training for law enforcement and health professionals.
“Not too terribly long ago, officers didn’t understand the importance of trauma-informed behavior and victim sensitivity,” Farmer said. “They knew how to work with criminals, but they didn’t necessarily know how to work with victims. VAWA has helped change that.”
Other regulations include criminalizing stalking by electronic surveillance, banning states from charging rape victims for forensic sexual assault exams, and funding grants to local agencies, among other protections.
“Equal rights, equal access to housing for victims of domestic violence, so that they’re not evicted because of a domestic violence relationship,” Bartel said.
Bartel says The Victim Center wouldn’t be able to provide free counseling and other support without VAWA. Last year alone, the Victim Center served more than 3,800 victims. At Harmony House, more than 800 people were helped in 2017.
Harmony House doesn’t receive any funding, but Farmer says it benefits from the collaboration piece of the act including the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
“We get, to this day, a lot of calls that get patched through our hotline from the National Domestic Violence Hotline,” she said.
Some legislators have sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan asking a vote be scheduled soon, so the Act doesn’t expire.
“If it doesn’t get reauthorized, it will send a bit of a negative message to victims and survivors that maybe their health and safety isn’t a priority,” Farmer said. “I think it could also send a message to perpetrators that maybe this isn’t a serious crime, maybe you are not going to be held accountable.”
VAWA has historically had very strong bi-partisan support, so although there is some time pressure advocates are hopeful it will be reauthorized.
“It’s very hard to quantify all of the ways that it has had an impact on our society as a whole,” Bartel said. “But I can say with confidence that looking back we are able to say that we are in a better place today as a community because of VAWA, because it did incentivize, encourage and provide funding to support organizations like the Victim Center, law enforcement and legal services.”